Understanding the transition to a circular economy and its implications on the environment, economy and society

CE-SC5-25-2020 (RIA Research and Innovation action)

The transition to a circular economy entails a systemic transformation of entire value chains, covering design, production and consumption phases, so that the value of products, materials and resources can be maintained in the economy for as long as possible, while reducing environmental impact. It also aims at increasing material productivity, including de-materialisation, and exploring new representations and practices of property for individuals and collectives. Such a deep transformation is unlikely to happen suddenly and would rather follow some transition processes and pathways. Understanding, in critical and thoughtful way, the transition to a circular economy and its positive and negative implications on the environment, economy and society (including human health), will be important for the development and adoption of circular economy approaches, including the design of well-targeted transitional policy measures. Moreover, the identification and analysis of best practices of the transition to a circular economy in- or outside Europe, on a citizen, business sectorial and macroeconomic level, possibly covering different cooperation models (including B2B, B2C, P2P, etc.) will serve as an inspiration for specific projects. They also can inform new and adapted policies and policy tools including regulation, taxation and financing, incentives, strategic governance mechanisms and soft tools (e.g. communication and awareness raising tools) to further disseminating the concept of circularity.


The research will assess the current state of transition towards the circular economy in relevant economic sectors (public, private and non-profit) and analyse possible transition scenarios, as well as their outcomes and impacts. It will identify the key factors (regulatory, governance-based, market, technological, cultural, societal, gender, etc.) that can stimulate or hinder this transition. The selected sectors should be among the ones identified in the EU Circular Economy Action Plan. Additional sectors could also be selected, considering criteria such as environmental footprint, health issues, complexities of value-chain, dependency on imported materials and relevance for European economy. Implications of the transition, both positive and negative, for the economy, the environment and the society will be assessed qualitatively and as much as possible quantified. For that reason, appropriate models for analysing and quantifying the various implications and trade-offs and assessing the sustainability of circular economy should be developed. The implications considered should include social, economic and environmental aspects, such as trade flows, value-chains, labour demand, European industry competitiveness, regulatory frameworks, policy and governance mechanisms, public and occupational health, greenhouse gas emissions, use of energy, land, water, minerals and other resources), flows of resources at all relevant geographical scales, human health, social and territorial cohesion, and value distribution across society. The role of public awareness and acceptance and other social aspects, including gender issues, need to be considered. Where relevant, particular attention should be paid to the issue of hazardous materials in a circular economy. Policy recommendations for policy-makers at the local, national, European and global levels, including recommendations on governance issues, will be derived from the research. Involvement of relevant social sciences and humanities disciplines and expertise in behavioural economics and gender issues, is deemed important.

In line with the strategy for EU international cooperation in research and innovation (COM(2012)497), international cooperation is encouraged, in particular with Africa.

This topic is in support of the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. Selected projects under this topic as well as projects selected under other topics in H2020 supporting the Plastics Strategy are strongly encouraged to participate in joint activities as appropriate. These joint activities could take the form of clustering of projects, participation in workshops, common exploitation and dissemination etc. The proposals are expected to demonstrate support to common coordination and dissemination activities. Applicants should plan the necessary budget to cover those activities without the prerequisite to define concrete common actions at this stage.

The Commission considers that proposals requesting a contribution from the EU in the range of EUR 3-4 million would allow this specific challenge to be addressed appropriately. Nonetheless, this does not preclude submission and selection of proposals requesting other amounts.

Expected Impact

The project results are expected to contribute to:

  • more systemic policy decisions to further facilitate the transition to a safe, environmentally friendly, efficient and effective circular economy in selected sectors;
  • efficient and effective use of both primary and secondary resources in Europe, reducing waste generation, negative health impacts, environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions;
  • new business opportunities for European industries and SMEs;
  • creating new tools and methodologies oriented to companies, to consider social, environmental and economic aspects when they design circular business models;
  • creating incentives and support the development of strategic governance mechanisms that enable the transition to a Circular Economy and contribute to the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in Europe;
  • supporting the achievement of climate commitments and specific quantitative targets on resources efficiency, recycling rates or waste disposal quotas.

Cross-cutting Priorities

Socio-economic science and humanities

Application date
Social sciences : Management and Public administration, Economy, Environmental Sciences, Gender studies, Identities, gender and sexuality, Law, Political science, Psychology & Cognitive Sciences, Sociology
Humanities : Anthropology & Ethnology